Tag Archives: choral singing

How to Find the Right Choir

Evensong in York MinsterFinding the right choir for you can be tough, but as I’ve said before, joining a choir is a great way to improve your singing and musical skills. Here are five really important questions to ask yourself before you start looking at the myriad of options available.

How Does the Choir Learn the Music?

Some choirs use sheet music, while others learn “by ear”, or more accurately, “by rote”. Using sheet music opens up a range of more difficult (dare I say, interesting) repertoire than can be learned just by listening and repeating. It also means things can be learnt more quickly. If the choir uses sheet music, you will get a real boost in your sight-reading abilities. However, you want the choir to challenge you, but not leave you behind, so ask the director if you can find out more about what kind of repertoire you’ll be singing and how fast you have to cover it.

Do I Have to Audition?

A good number of choirs audition, and they auditon for lots of reasons. Some want to check if you can keep up with the sight-reading needed. Others might be looking for a particular vocal sound. The most prestigous will want the whole package. You might find a choir auditions sopranos and altos, but doesn’t audition tenors as they’re a bit short handed. The size of the choir will give you an idea of how difficult the auditions are to pass, and you should definitely ask the director what you have to do and how formal the process is. You might also ask how many people are successful, and how many are turned away too.

What kind of music do they sing?

There’s a choir for every genre of music, but the main types you find are traditional choirs (singing classical music usually with sheet music), pop choirs (singing contemporary music learned by rote) and church choirs (singing religious music, usually with sheet music). You definitely want to look for a choir whose music you enjoy, so why not go along to a concert or service to hear the choir and decide if you like the general kind of music they sing. You won’t like every peice, so consider the overview more than the specifics.

Sopranos

What kind of performance do they give?

The TV show Glee has led to a rise in the “show choir” in the UK. There are now more and more choirs who really go to town with their performances including dance and costume. Some choirs are more sedate, going for some swaying and clapping. Others are much more formal and just stand with book in hand. Think about what is most comfortable for you. You should be able to find out about this easily.

This is also the point to consider if you have any mobility or health issues that might affect your ability to stand still for a long time etc.

How much does it cost?

Some choirs are free. Some might even pay you to be part of them (church choirs, for example). Others charge a membership fee to cover the cost of the musical director and accompanist, hall hire and books. There may also be charges for loan of music or buying choir t-shirts. You should ask what costs are entailed, and make sure that you check about extras, not just the membership fee. If you do have to pay, ask about the arrangements for leaving the choir – do you get money back, or can you only leave at the end of a subs period?

Useful Websites

Here are a few directory sites that might help you find a few choirs to try:

  • http://www.choirs.org.uk/home.htm
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/sing/findachoir.shtml
  • https://www.nationalassociationofchoirs.org.uk/

Are you part of a choir? What kind of choir is it? How did you find it?

Exercises for Beginners: Square Breathing

One of my favourite exercises for beginners, and for warming up with a choir is square breathing. It’s all about developing control of your breath, and extending lung capacity.

From the beginning of any vocal training, it’s really important to work on your breathing. To breathe properly, you need to breath into every part of your lungs, especially the bottom part near your stomach. Your ribcage, back and abdomen will expand when you’re breathing to your fullest extent (this is no time for vanity about having a ‘flat belly’!). You want your shoulders and upper chest to remain as still a possible and not rise up. They’ll likely move a little bit, but it should be hardly noticeable to the eye.

Before you try square breathing, take a few deep breaths, focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs with air. If you’re struggling, place a hand just at the bottom of your ribcage – you should feel it going up and down.

Once you’re comfortable with this, you want to start to inhale and exhale on a rhythm. Count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.

Square breathing

Now, let’s try the exercise itself.

Breathe in for a slow count of 1-2-3-4 and then hold the breathe in for a count of 1-2-3-4, then breathe out to 1-2-3-4 and then wait for 1-2-3-4 before breathing back in again. Look at the handy diagram on the right to get a better idea of how the pattern works.

When I’m conducting a choir, I use hand movements that model this square shape (hence the name square breathing), moving my hand up for in, across for hold, down for out, and across the other way for hold.

As you get used to it, start to increase the count to 8, 12, 16 and more – try not to speed up the counting though! You could also try doing this while walking as that makes it harder because your body is using slightly more oxygen to walk rather than sit or stand. You could also mix and match the numbers so breathe in for 2, hold for 4, out for 8 and wait for 2.

I recommend my students to try to do this exercise every day as part of their practice. It’s something you can do easily in all kinds of situations, so while you might use it as part of a warm-up for singing practice, you could also do it silently in your morning commute, or sat at the back of a dull meeting (one of my students does it during school assemblies). You could even do it in bed as it can encourage physical relaxation.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, or where you might be called on to speak though!

The muscles in your lungs, just like those everywhere else in your body need to be used to get stronger. Doing this exercise every day will help you to focus on good breathing technique, so it becomes automatic, and it will strengthen your muscles so you can control the outflow of breath when you are singing.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your breath control for singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?